The fundamental problem is not secessionism or devolution but justice for all communities in the...


by Dr. Asoka Bandarage

At a closed-door workshop on Sri Lanka organized by the United States Institute for Peace and the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. in August 2009, a leading Sri Lankan Tamil activist and a moderate asserted that Diaspora agitation would stop immediately when ‘13th plus’ or Tamil regional autonomy was conceded. He failed to mention that from the inception the ‘father of Tamil separatism,’ S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, saw federalism as a stepping stone to secession. The motto of his gradualist approach was: ‘a little now, more later’.

With strong backing of western governments and India, local Tamil politicians are demanding a political settlement from the Sri Lankan government. LTTE proxy and largest Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, TNA, originally supported Tamil separatism. However, in early 2010 it dropped the demand for an independent state agreeing to accept regional self-rule instead. On December 12, 2010, the TNA entered into a joint initiative with the Tamil Parties Forum consisting of the majority of Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka to engage in talks with the Sri Lankan government to reach a political settlement. The TNA has also offered party membership to youth in an effort to broaden its mandate.

While the regional power India is not offering to broker talks and a political settlement, it has been highly active in calling for a political settlement based on devolution of power to Sri Lanka’s Northern and the Eastern Provinces.

On a recent visit to Sri Lanka, Indian Foreign Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna reiterated India’s commitment to ‘meaningful devolution’ to the Tamil majority areas. While in Jaffna, he is reported to have stated that devolution should be based on the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. In addition, India has inaugurated an Indian consulate in Jaffna in the northern tip of Sri Lanka which is close to Tamil Nadu and where there is a large Tamil population and active support for Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka.

Not insignificantly, India has also inaugurated an Indian consulate in Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka which is a major site of investment of India’s rival, China.

Informal dialogue has already taken place between the Sri Lankan government and TNA representatives on political decentralization. Reportedly, a preliminary agreement has been made to give the Provinces ‘exclusive powers over land and fiscal powers including the power to receive foreign direct investment with provision for the Centre to request and use lands necessary for other national projects.’

Agreement is yet to be made on police powers and the unit of devolution, possibly a compromise on the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. In theory a change of the Sri Lankan constitution to decentralize authority from the center to the periphery appears to be a logical compromise to both the separate state and the unitary state associated with Tamil and Sinhala nationalism respectively. The ‘international community,’ the Indian government, Sri Lankan NGO peace groups and left-liberals (including some members of the current Sri Lankan government) who espouse this federalist position are considered moderates.

In the abstract, a change of the Sri Lankan constitution and the transformation of the state from a unitary to a federal governance structure does seem to be the way out of the impasse. However, sustainable peace building cannot be undertaken a priori simply in accordance with the interests of politicians, be they local or international. Policymaking must be based on the demographic and socio-economic situation on the ground. Even if ‘iron clad guarantees’ against eventual secession are introduced into a political agreement, a Kosovo type situation could be repeated in Sri Lanka. The fundamental problem, however, is not secessionism or devolution but justice for all communities in the island. To be just, a settlement whether it be the unitary state or separatism, outright secessionism or regional autonomy, must accord with social realities and needs of all groups rather than aspirations of elites.

Devolution: A Just Solution?

The preliminary agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the TNA is based on previously failed and rejected agreements, notably the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. The 13th Amendment imposed by India was intended to resolve ‘Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem’ by devolving power to the Northern and Eastern Provinces identified as the ‘areas of historical habitation of the Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples.’ Instead of resolving problems, the Indo-Lanka Agreement and Indian intervention culminated in one of the bloodiest and most anarchic periods in the history of the island. It led to violent resistance by the Sinhala JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) in the south and the empowerment of the LTTE, one of several Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups originally funded and armed by India, as the ‘sole representative of Tamils’. What were the reasons for the unpopularity and the failure of the 13th Amendment? What are the basic demographic and socio-economic ground realities? Sri Lanka is one of the most densely populated countries in the world with a highly uneven population distribution. The population is highly concentrated in the south especially the Western Province while the Northern and Eastern Provinces remain relatively under-populated. The latter two Provinces constitute as much as one-third of the island and two-thirds of the coastline.

But, the percentage of the Sri Lankan Tamil population for whom self-rule is being anticipated has significantly decreased. The Sri Lankan Tamil population was about 12.6% of the island’s total population according to the Census of 1981 but The Economist estimated that in 2002 the Sri Lankan Tamils were only 8% of the total population, that is, the same percentage as the Muslims. These estimates may change following the Census to be conducted in 2011.

There is concern on the island over the possible allocation of a large and valuable area of land to a Provincial Council dominated by a tiny Sri Lankan Tamil political elite. This concern is compounded by the fact that the claimed northern and eastern regions are characterized by ethno-religious pluralism rather than exclusivity.

The Eastern Province is the home to Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslims, approximately one-third each. The Northern Province had a significant Muslim population and a smaller Sinhalese population who were driven out by the LTTE during the course of the war. On November 30, 1990, 75,000-100,000 Muslims were driven out of Jaffna overnight by the LTTE.

The majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka live in the southern areas outside the disputed 'Tamil Homeland.' This is particularly evident in the increasing pluralism of Colombo, the capital city which is now predominantly non-Sinhalese. There are more Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto and in Colombo each than in Jaffna. The Sri Lankan Tamil community today is more a transnational and an island-wide minority rather than a regional minority. These facts as well as the strengthened patterns of multiculturalism and mutual co-existence in the south undermine the separatist argument that an exclusive Tamil northeastern region is required for Tamils to live in safety apart from the Sinhalese.

These issues of social justice, rather than assumed primordial hatred are behind the rejection of an autonomous Tamil dominated region by the Sinhala majority and the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka. Though predominantly Tamil speaking, Sri Lankan Muslims identify themselves as a distinct religiously defined ethnic group. Tamil separatism has not been embraced by the significant hill country Tamil people who have always sought Sri Lankan citizenship and integration rather than separation from the Sri Lankan polity. Segments of the Tamil population living in the south, especially the Colombo metropolitan region, may not want to take up residence in the north or the east in a separate political formation either.

A resuscitation of the controversial Thirteenth Amendment (as '13th plus' or other form) could encourage balkanization. It could revive calls for a separate Muslim administrative unit in the East, as happened during the 2002 Norwegian facilitated peace process which sought to establish LTTE control over the north and the east. The grant of exclusive regional power over land is likely to create a dual and unjust situation where property ownership and residency in the North and the East are restricted to ethnic Tamils but available to all in the rest of the island. Then, regional autonomy could lead to ethnic cleansing, population transfers, and new forms of conflict and violence as they have in other regions of the world where partition was externally imposed.

Towards Unity Amidst Diversity

The rise of Tamil minority grievances, ethnic violence, the armed separatist struggle and the large Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora are all commonly attributed to Sri Lanka's post-independence language, employment, and land settlement policies favouring the Sinhala majority.

During the British colonial period, Sri Lankan Tamils from the Jaffna Peninsula had disproportionate access to English language education, prestigious university science faculties and careers in the Civil Service and modern professions such as Medicine, Accountancy and Engineering. Despite being approximately 12% of the island's population, the Sri Lankan Tamils were treated as a 'majority community' by the British and given equal political representation (in the Legislative Council) with the Sinhalese who were nearly 70% of the population.

Many of the post-independence Sri Lankan state policies were put in place to redress those ethnic and class disparities established in the colonial era. Ethnically based political mobilization of the Sinhalese and the Tamils by their self-interested leaders led to the 'ethnic conflict' and the armed struggle and the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of poor youth from both communities.

Sri Lanka has long abolished discriminatory legislation. However, many more efforts beyond the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Committee appointed by the Sri Lankan government are called for to build trust among groups and a common vision and partnership to reconstruct the society. Political, economic and psychological needs of local people, Tamils as well as Muslim and Sinhalese, must take precedence over corporate and elite interests in the war devastated north and east.

The 13th Amendment introduced in 1987 made Tamil an official language in Sri Lanka but provision has to be made to enforce that regulation more widely. The Sri Lankan government recently introduced a policy of compulsory trilingual education in Sinhala, Tamil and English for all students. It is intended to facilitate communication between the different linguistic groups and to bridge the class divide between the English speaking elite and the rest of the population. For this policy to succeed, teachers need to be trained adequately and placed throughout the island. Language and education expansion have to be matched with greater access to employment for all communities in both the public and private sectors.

While the present government has a two-thirds majority in Parliament and President Mahinda Rajapaksa is immensely popular, greater efforts need to be made to improve transparency, accountability and the rule of law. Safeguarding democracy in the face of terrorisms is not an easy task as increasingly understood by western democracies themselves.

The recently passed controversial Constitutional Amendment removing term limits to the Executive Presidency needs also to be viewed in this context. The Sri Lankan government is beleaguered by a one- sided international human rights campaign which overlooks the suffering and devastation caused by one of the world's most ruthless terrorist organizations for over three decades. Sri Lanka's increasing reliance on China is partly a result of ostracism by the 'international community.'

Sustainable peacebuilding in Sri Lanka calls for a more balanced approach from the 'international community.' The task of reconciliation and peacebuilding, however, cannot be left entirely to the government or external actors. A comprehensive Plan of Action involving private, state and civil society is needed. Diasporas, women and youth need to engage across ethnic divides to develop initiatives for lasting peace and development of the country.

Given Sri Lanka's strategic location and the so-called 'Great Game' (between the East and West) emerging in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lankans need to be vigilant in protecting the island's resources and needs from external interests. India and China are both increasingly involved in much needed and welcomed economic and infrastructural development in Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lankans must not allow the island to become the theater for regional or global super power struggles in the future. More importantly, it is necessary to keep the ecological fragility and vulnerability of the island in mind: climate change, coastal erosion, tsunamis, etc. may be the ultimate victors over the land, not Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or external actors.

(Dr.Asoka Bandarage is Affiliated Professor, Sociology and Public Policy at Georgetown University. This paper was originally written on the invitation of the South Asian Journal of the South Asian Free Media Association. It was declined for publication by the South Asian Journal. The extensive references and footnotes given in the original publication are not reproduced here).

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